Vt. Indigenous Heritage Center Aims To Break Stereotypes With Expanded Exhibit
On June 5, a newly expanded exhibit exploring the history, culture and present experiences of Native people in what we now know as Vermont opens at the Ethan Allen Homestead in Burlington’s Intervale. Vermont Indigenous Heritage Center coordinator Fred Wiseman says there’s a lot to see in this compact exhibit.
“You know, you can start with a little kind of overview of Vermont archaeology," he said. "We've got all the different [arrow] point types, and we've got the pottery and some fossils and things like that.”
There are also examples of Abenaki tools and furniture, clothing and jewelry, and explanations of some cultural traditions.
"But where it gets interesting,” Wiseman says, “is my favorite exhibit, the Abenaki in Vermont 1800-1970. Because that's a period people really didn't believe that Native people were in here at the time.”
"'A tribe of Missisquois, who live a wandering life on the eastern shore of Lake Champlain' ... that's from the Green Mountain Democrat. And it's from 1835. So that locks the Missisquois in at least 40 years after people said [they were] gone." — Fred Wiseman, Vermont Indigenous Heritage Center
For Wiseman, an Abenaki scholar, ethnobotanist, and sometimes activist, the exhibits at the Indigenous Heritage Center go far beyond displaying interesting artifacts. He sees these collections as ways to combat stereotypes and disprove long-held beliefs about Vermont's native people.
A member of the Missisquoi Abenaki band, Wiseman says historians and policymakers long said there were no Abenaki in Vermont after the mid-1800s. So Wiseman went in search of notes, photographs, newspaper clippings, and handmade tools that prove otherwise. Put together, the exhibit helps reinforce the existence of Abenaki people on the Vermont landscape throughout the 1800s and 1900s.
“As far as a newspaper article, I guess probably one of the most important ones is from 1835,” Wiseman said, pointing to an enlarged quote mounted to one of the walls. “And it says, ‘A tribe of Missisquois, who live a wandering life on the eastern shore of Lake Champlain.’ And that's from the Green Mountain Democrat. And it’s from 1835. So that locks the Missisquois in at least 40 years after people said [they were] gone.”
Similarly, some of the displayed objects are also meant to prove a continuity of tradition and culture tied to the Abenaki.
“One of my favorite artifacts is down on the floor here, a decoy made out of river birch," Wiseman said. He notes that some historians suggest this kind of decoy was originally made by other Native American tribes and perhaps folded into Abenaki culture in recent years. But he believe this is a style native to the Abenaki.
The specimen in this collection came from an Abenaki family on the Canadian side of Lake Memphremagog. And Wiseman says he’s heard from others who are familiar with waterfowl decoys like this one. Like Nulhegan Abenaki member Nancy Cote, who told Wiseman her family made this style of decoy when she was a child.
“And I told her that I had one, and I said, ‘It doesn't look very realistic to me,’" he said. "And she said, ‘Fred! To a goose that looks like a goose!’ And so that's the quote that goes along with that. Because even though it didn't come from her family, she remembers that. So that has a bit of oral history as well.”
Wiseman says he hopes visitors will be able to learn about longstanding cultural traditions as well as the path to state recognition. The state of Vermont officially recognized four bands of the Abenaki in 2011 and 2012. At the time of recognition, the state estimated that at least 1,700 Vermonters identified as Abenaki.
"If you only tell a small sliver of stories, you don't get a real appreciation of history's complexity." — Dan O'Neil, Ethan Allen Homestead
Having the Vermont Indigenous Heritage Center located within the grounds of the Ethan Allen Homestead, which focuses on the white man often celebrated as the founder of Vermont, is symbolism not lost on Wiseman or the Homestead’s director.
This co-location not only appropriately elevates the importance of Native Vermonters, Wiseman says, but also pushes against a narrative of constant strife between Native Americans and white settlers, or, as he refers to it, "guys, guts and guns."
"And when you actually look at the history, there was brief periods of terror and conflict interspersed by long periods of accommodation and getting along and intermarrying and friendship," Wiseman said. "So in a weird way, this strange symbiosis between the Vermont Indigenous Heritage Center and the Ethan Allen Homestead kind of is operationalizing that."
Homestead director Dan O'Neil agrees.
“If you only tell a small sliver of stories, you don't get a real appreciation of history's complexity," O'Neil said. "And so by making this partnership, it shows us what a beautiful tapestry our history is, at the same time acknowledging past injustices and really striving to work together toward a better future.”
The "Post-Covid Reopening" of the Vermont Indigenous Heritage Center includes the new museum exhibits as well as new experimental horticulture plots and botanical garden plantings and other outdoor structures still in the works. Festivities begin at noon on June 5.
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